Windows 7 Feature Focus
Windows Taskbar

In Windows 95, Microsoft introduced the Windows Taskbar, commonly called the taskbar, as a way to manage open applications and other windows. It was a response to people's increased ability and need to multitask in Windows, as previous versions of the OS provided no ready visual indication of how many windows were currently available. (Unless they were minimized, that is: Minimized windows appeared as buttons on the bottom of the Program Manager screen.)

The Windows 95 taskbar was a simple UI construct, but it grew bigger, more complex, and more powerful over time and subsequent Windows version. The original Start button, tray notification area, and clock were expanded to include a plethora of other functions, including numerous customizations and an expanding array of optional toolbar types. One of these, the Quick Access toolbar, was popular enough that it became a stock part of the taskbar in Windows XP. (And popular enough that it subsumed the old taskbar in Windows 7. More on this below.)

Unfortunately, some parts of the taskbar also contributed to the bloat and complexity for which Windows is now infamous. Especially egregious is the tray notification area: Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of applications have added often-unnecessary icons to the tray area, and many new PCs still ship with an over-abundance of crapware and their telltale tray icons.

Windows 7 includes an enhanced taskbar that addresses some of the issues of the past by minimizing clutter and putting commonly-needed functions in a single place. And while it is just one of many new UI enhancements in Windows 7, it is also arguably the most obvious because the taskbar is always up front and center, anchored (by default) to the bottom of the screen.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
The Windows 7 Taskbar.

The big change this time around is that Microsoft has combined the taskbar's previous functionality--its ability to manage open applications and other windows--with program launching capabilities that were originally the purview of the Start Menu. And while this may be confusing at first, it does minimize the number of UI locations you need to visit to get work done. But this change also dramatically reduces the need for a separate Start Menu, leading me to wonder if Windows 7 doesn't represent a migration away from another famous UI construct that first appeared in Windows 95.

What's new with the Windows 7 taskbar

While the Windows 7 taskbar works generally like its predecessor, it brings with it a surprising number of changes, many of which are not immediately obvious. In fact, one of the sharpest criticisms one might bring against the Windows 7 taskbar is that some of its most important new features aren't easily discoverable.

Combined window management and program launching

As noted above, the Windows 7 taskbar combines two previously separate bits of functionality: Open window management and program launching/file opening. Prior to Windows 7, the taskbar was generally used only to manage open applications and other windows, but the popularity of the Quick Launch toolbar--which was a secondary way, after the Start Menu, to launch applications and open files--led Microsoft to add this functionality directly to the main taskbar. So instead of two separate areas between the Start button (now called the Start Orb) and the tray notification area, you get one taskbar that does it all.

Of course, with such a system, you need some way to differentiate taskbar buttons that represent shortcuts (that is, applications or files that are not yet open) from running applications and other open windows. To enable this distinction, Microsoft has drawn on the way toolbars work elsewhere within Windows. That is, shortcuts simply appear in the taskbar band with no border, while other windows provide a visual clue to their status. The button for an open window, for example, includes a border. A button representing multiple open windows provides a more visually distinct border that sort of resembles a stack of buttons. And the current, or selected, window provides a highlighted button. These effects are all shown in the following figure:

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Multiple button types make navigating the new taskbar difficult, even for seasoned Windows users.

Secret: There are other related taskbar button effects as well. For example, a window or application that needs to notify the user can blink its taskbar button or provide a more solid highlight.

Secret: Microsoft isn't the first OS maker to combine shortcuts with open window and application management. Indeed, the most famous is probably Apple, which birthed its Mac OS X Dock in 2001 with the first release of that OS. Decried by user interface experts as a usability disaster, the Dock has soldiered on over the years with some minor but important changes. Microsoft seems hell bent on making the same mistakes a decade later. Typical.

Customizable buttons

In previous versions of the taskbar, the location of taskbar buttons would be dictated by the order in which you opened and closed applications and other windows, so the layout of the taskbar could be different every single time you used Windows. In Windows 7, the taskbar is far more customizable, and since you're able to "pin" shortcuts to the taskbar, and move them around so that they're in the order you prefer, you will have a more consistent taskbar with more easily remembered buttons.

You pin shortcuts to the taskbar by finding an application, folder, or other shortcut in the Start Menu or file system, right-clicking, and choosing Pin to Taskbar. (There is also a Pin to Start Menu option.) Items pinned in this fashion automatically appear as the rightmost shortcut on the taskbar, but you can drag and drop the shortcuts and buttons so that they appear in the order you prefer.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
You can easily pin shortcuts to the Windows 7 taskbar.

You can also pin shortcuts by dragging them directly to the taskbar. As you drag icons onto the taskbar, a "Pin to" balloon window will appear to guide you. You can unpin any taskbar shortcut by right-clicking and choosing "Unpin this program from the taskbar."

Secret: Stupidly, if you pin an icon from the Start Menu to the taskbar, it will actually disappear from the Start Menu's Most Recently Used (MRU) list, which more than sort of obviates the point of that list. You can, however, pin such items to the Start Menu as well, if you'd like. In fact, that's the only way to get a single shortcut to appear both on the taskbar and on the default Start Menu display. (Items that are pinned to the taskbar still appear in the Start Menu's All Programs sub-menu.)

New look and feel

The Windows 7 taskbar is more glass-like and transparent than its darker and less attractive Windows Vista predecessor. In addition, its bigger buttons provide a better visual representation of what each icon represents, oftentimes with a photo-realistic icon.

That said, average Windows users will likely find the enhanced taskbar in Windows 7 to be somewhat confusing for two reasons. First, the icon-only default view doesn't provide a text label for each button as did all prior taskbar versions; so, if you can't figure out what application or window a particular button represents, you'll need to mouse over it to find out. Second, the way that the enhanced taskbar visually "stacks" multiple windows under a single button isn't obvious, and it's unclear how many open windows are really there; a button that visually shows two additional "layers" could represent 3, 7, or more open windows. You'll never know until you mouse over the button.

Fortunately, there is a fix. You can change the taskbar's poor default behavior and make it more usable, adding back button labels and ensuring that each open window or application is represented by its own button, rather than having similar windows grouped together under a single button.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
How many IE windows (and tabs) are open on this PC? 3? 7? 200? Who knows?

To do so, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Properties. In the Taskbar tab of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window, you'll see a "Taskbar buttons" drop-down list with three choices. These are:

Always combine, hide labels. This is the default taskbar button style in Windows 7. There are no button labels and related windows are always represented by a single taskbar button no matter how many of them there are. This may be suitable for advanced users, but typical Windows users will find this display confusing.

Combine when taskbar is full. In this view style, taskbar buttons each have a descriptive text label (as they did in previous Windows versions) and related windows are not grouped unless the taskbar gets full. (They are, however, connected, which is a nice effect.) When that happens, related windows are grouped under a single button. I find this view style to be the best one, and the one that I feel should be the default in Windows 7.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
With this view style enable, every window gets its own window and every taskbar button gets a label.

Never combine. This view style works like "Combine when taskbar is full" except that buttons will never be combined, even when the taskbar is full. So what happens if the taskbar is full, you ask? Confusingly, it takes on a multi-level appearance, using chevron-like arrows at the far right so that you can navigate between the different taskbar levels, each of which has its own set of buttons. This view style would only make sense for those that prefer expanding the height of the taskbar so that it occupies three or more rows.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Never Combine works fine until the taskbar fills up. Then, things get ugly.

In addition to these view style options, taskbar buttons also provide in-line progress bars. So if you're copying a file with Windows Explorer, downloading a file with Internet Explorer 8, or performing some similar task, you can keep an eye on the progress without actually finding and viewing any sub-windows.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Inline progress bars are a legitimately excellent new feature of the Windows 7 taskbar.

Finally, taskbar buttons are colorized to match the icon for the underlying application or window. So the IE taskbar button is blue, for example, while the Zune taskbar is pink.

Taskbar thumbnails

When you mouse-over a taskbar button for a running application or open window, a new taskbar thumbnail will appear, providing a preview of the window (or windows) that are represented by that button. Typically, these thumbnails will provide a miniature version of the underlying window(s), but applications are free to customize these previews as well. For example, Windows Media Player provides a customized taskbar thumbnail that displays images, album artwork, and video, as well as simplified playback controls.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
A standard taskbar thumbnail and the customized Windows Media Player version.

For most taskbar thumbnails, you will also see a small red "x" icon that lets you close the associated window without first accessing the actual window. And as you mouse-over the thumbnail, you will receive a full-screen preview of the window for an even better view.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Mouse-over the taskbar thumbnail to get a full-screen preview.

Tip: Invariably, the first time you access a full-screen preview you will then mouse off of the preview to access the actual window. That doesn't work: When you do so, the window (and the preview) disappear. Instead, you need to click on the taskbar thumbnail itself to access that window. This is, of course, a typical example of Microsoft's ham-handed UI design. I guess once you burn yourself you learn not to do it again.

If the button you're hovering over represents multiple windows, you will see ... multiple thumbnails. Yes, that actually makes sense.

Secret: Internet Explorer 8 is customized so that each tab has its own taskbar thumbnail as well. You can expect similar customizations from other apps in the months and years ahead.

Jump Lists

Jump Lists are a new feature in Windows 7 that replace the Recent Documents Start Menu entry (yet another indication that the Start Menu is on the way out). Instead of locking a list of recently accessed documents to a single UI construct, however, Jump Lists provide that functionality--and more--in a more logical and universally accessible way, by adding a new pop-up menu to application and folder shortcuts in the Start Menu and taskbar.

In the taskbar, you can access a shortcut's Jump List by right-clicking it. When you do so, a pop-up list of applicable options appears. This list can be the default set of options offered by Windows. Or, an application can modify its Jump List and provide a customized version.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
A taskbar button Jump List.

Secret: In addition to right-clicking to view a Jump List, you can also click and hold a taskbar button and then drag up. As you do so, the Jump List will fade-in while you drag up. This action is actually designed for touch screen users, but it works pretty well with the mouse as well and could become an interesting new common mouse maneuver in the days ahead as a result.

The simplest Jump Lists are for those non-document applications, like Mozilla Firefox, that haven't yet been rewritten to take advantage of this new feature. With such an application, the Jump List will have just two options: One that is the name of the application ("Mozilla Firefox"), and one that reads, "Pin this program to the taskbar" or "Unpin this program from the taskbar" (depending on whether it's pinned). If the application is running, a third option, "Close window," will also appear.

Secret: The top Jump List option, which uses the name of the application window, can be used to open a second window of that application. This can be important for certain applications, like Web browsers.

Document-based applications, like Adobe Reader, pick up additional Recent list that appears in the Jump List and provides a list of recently-accessed documents that can be opened by that application. Likewise, folder icons include a Frequent list that provides a list of frequently-accessed shell locations, like Documents, Pictures, and Music.

Windows 7-savvy applications, including those that ship with Windows 7, can of course customize their Jump Lists, often in interesting ways. For example, Windows Live Messenger includes a list of Tasks (Sign in, Go to Email inbox, and so on).

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
The Windows Live Messenger Jump List.

Windows Media Player customizes its Jump List to include a Frequent list (frequently accessed media) and Tasks (like Resume last playlist and Play all music shuffled).

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Windows Media Player's customized Jump List.

Touch friendly

The Windows 7 taskbar is touch-friendly, meaning it will work well with PCs that utilize multi-touch displays. This explains the new larger size of the taskbar, the square default buttons, and the touch-centric "push up" functionality that optionally displays a taskbar button's Jump List.

Auto-simplified tray notification area

In Windows 7, the taskbar still includes a tray notification area (sometimes called simply the Notification area) to the right (and to the left of the clock/date area) but there have been a few changes. Now, the Notification is streamlined so that only four icons--Action Center, Battery (for notebooks), Network, and Volume--appear by default. And when you install new applications that do add an icon to the Notification area, those icons are auto-hidden by default.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
By default, the Windows 7 Notification area is uncluttered.

If you do wish to see a hidden tray icon, hide a tray icon, or change the position of tray icons, doing so is easy. In Windows 7, tray icons now support drag and drop, so moving them around is straightforward; to unhide an icon, simply drag it out of the "Show hidden icons" window and onto the tray: It's that easy.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
You can drag and drop notification icons to hide, display, or reorder them.

Tip: You can, of course, still manually manage which icons are displayed and hidden. To do so, click the "Show hidden icons" button to the left of the Notification area and then click the Customize link. The Notification Area Icons control panel will appear.

Aero Peek button

To the very far right of the taskbar, there is a new glass-like slab for triggering Aero Peek. This button and Aero Peek are discussed in my Aero Peek Feature Focus.

Problems with the taskbar

While the enhanced taskbar in Windows 7 does reduce clutter and move much often-used functionality into a single location, it's not perfect. Indeed, I've identified a number of issues with the Windows 7 taskbar that I think will confuse many users. These include:

The default button view style doesn't provide enough information. The label-less buttons are clean, but I'd rather know what each icon does. Read the section on "New look and feel," above, to find out how you can make the Windows 7 taskbar work more efficiently.

How do you open a second window for an application that is already running? In previous versions of Windows, if you had an application like Firefox, Microsoft Word, or Windows Explorer open, you could simply click its shortcut again to open another window. However, in Windows 7, Microsoft has combined shortcuts with the buttons for open windows, so this no longer works. How do you open a new window for an application that is already running? The trick is to utilize the new Jump List feature: Open the Jump List for the application in question and then click the name of the application in the list. (Secret: You can also middle-click--yes, middle-click--or SHIFT + click the taskbar button if your mouse supports such a thing.) That will make a new window appear.

The clean new Notification area hides functionality but does nothing to help you actually prevents applications from running at startup. Yes, the Windows 7 Notification area is less cluttered than in previous Windows versions because it auto-hides every icon that applications add there. But that doesn't address the real problem: These applications are still running at boot-time and Windows 7 does not include the excellent Software Explorer tool from Windows Defender to help you stop them from running in the first place. (Windows Vista included this tool.) What Windows 7 does include is the lousy System Configuration (msconfig.exe) from older Windows versions. That's not right, and hiding icons is not the same as preventing them from loading in the first place. Hopefully Microsoft will address this issue before Windows 7 is finalized.

Right-click is now inconsistent. If you right-click the Start orb, a taskbar button, the taskbar, a tray icon, the clock, and the Aero Peek button in turn, you'll see different kinds of menus. Taskbar buttons get Jump Lists, but everything else--including the Notification icons--get old-school context menus. Adding to the weirdness, you can single-click any Notification icon to get a Jump List-like window. Indeed, the one for Network looks just like a Jump List. But you click it, and not right-click it, to view that menu. This behavior is inconsistent.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Taskbar
Context menus are inconsistently styled in Windows 7.

Final thoughts

Sadly, much of what's happening in this release seems half-realized. It's pretty clear that the Start Menu will be removed or retargeted in a future Windows versions, and while Jump Lists are handy, they work inconsistently across different buttons and when compared to similar Notification area icons. All that said, change is hard, and while the default behavior of the enhanced taskbar in Windows 7 is less than desirable, it is easily fixed, allowing users to achieve its benefits without being tasked too seriously by its problems. Overall, I like what Microsoft has done here, even though the rushed nature of this release, combined with too-little external testing, will result in an enhanced taskbar instead of one that is thoroughly rethought.